I’m back on the road and in The Gambia on the coast of West Africa where the current temperature is a rather uncomfortable 39 degrees centigrade but at least it’s not raining like it is back home in London.
Independent since seceding from the British in 1965 The Gambia is a tiny country whose borders meander inward some 400 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean following the Gambia River and, the ocean apart, is surrounded all sides by the Francophone country of Senegal. In recent decades it has been a beacon of peace for West Africa which has seen its fair share of coups, war, famine and general turmoil and The Gambia continues today in that peaceful vein. Since the turn of the millennium the Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have all suffered civil wars and political unrest and even in the past two months Mali and Guinea-Bissau have both witnessed coups d’état. As such, The Gambia has built on its peaceful reputation and has a thriving tourist industry and this reputation is reflected in it being the second highest ranked location in West Africa after Ghana in ECA’s Location Ratings ranking. The hotel I’m staying at is evidence aplenty of the tourism as I meet holidaymakers from East London and Newcastle at the breakfast buffet.
Tourism and agriculture make up the bulk of the Gambian economy but with around 50 foreign embassies in the country and the presence of overseas banks there is an expatriate community albeit not on the scale of cities like Lagos or Dakar. In fact, the Standard Chartered Bank has been present in The Gambia for over 115 years, establishing the first bank to operate in the country way back in 1894. They were also the first bank to introduce ATM machines in The Gambia!
Although the capital is Banjul, its outward growth is limited to its position on a small island and so I find myself around the areas of Fajara and Serrekunda, where many of the tourist hotels are located and where all of the shops frequented by expatriates are – and what a pleasant surprise the supermarkets have been. I’ve been to most countries in West Africa but the choice of groceries and imported foods here is up there with the best of them, in part thanks to the hordes of tourists. Whilst strolling the aisles of Maroun’s supermarket and Right Choice it felt like I was back home in England with my morning Nestle Cheerios, snack time Jammie Dodgers and after-dinner indulgent favourite Haagen Dazs all plentiful. The goods are all well in date too which I have previously found is often not the case on this continent! Okay, it’s not London or Paris but for a country of its size most international visitors and long-term residents should be more than happy coping with their daily dietary desires. The Timbooktoo (clever eh!) bookshop is another little gem with its two floors of the latest novels and all things book related rivalling even those in South Africa. The streets, however, still maintain that quintessentially African feel with roadside stalls commonplace and fruit markets dotted along the sandy pavements.
The shops favoured by expats are fairly spread out and so Edward, the genial bellboy at my hotel, put me in contact with a young man called Ismael who, with his driver, took me to all of the places on my list. As always in Africa our initial conversation quickly steered towards football (soccer, to the confused) and it turns out that he is a minor celebrity in Bakau (the small suburb where I’m staying) as he plays for a team in the Gambian 4thDivision with dreams of being the next global football superstar. When Ismael initially came to pick me up the first thing I noticed was that the driver put on his seatbelt – a novelty in these parts and a sign that perhaps The Gambia is a little more progressive than others in the region. The main roads are well paved too, and the general feel is that day-to-day the place is functioning satisfactorily and the many locals whom I have struck up conversations with in the street all seem happy and aware that their country is faring better than most in the region.
I was due to fly home yesterday but my flight was cancelled and so I have the bonus of an extra 24 hours to write up my data and stave off my return to wetter climes. However this gives me little time on my return to get ready for my next research trip to Azerbaijan where I will be reporting from in a few days’ time. I hope you can join me!